Monthly Archives: December 2010

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An Arty, Smarty Holiday

How was your holiday? Hope you had a good one. Ours was filled with more art than usual, since both Christopher and I gifted each other with some great framed lovelies that we hung throughout the house.
Every year in my family, we draw names to get one big gift for whichever family member’s name gets drawn (it’s much simpler that way). This year I ended up getting my own spouse… so in addition to the normal gifts I usually buy, a bigger, secret gift had to be purchased. Mine was this wonderful “Little Owls” print created by a British Etsy seller by the name of Roddy & Ginger. I had it framed in a dark Mission-style wood frame — and it looks fantastic!

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I love having new art in the home. Christopher also gave some swell stuff by famous ’60s/’70s print artist David Weidman. Weidman sold his work pre-framed, in both original screen prints and high quality reproductions (sort of an Etsy seller before his time, actually). This cat print is one of the repros, but it looks great above my dresser:

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And here’s an original Weidman framed screen print of three quail executed in very ’60s shades of harvest gold, burnt orange and brown. Looks wonderful on the blue bedroom wall:

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In addition to the two pieces of fab art, Christopher gifted me with a couple of books off my Amazon wish list — Dan Nadel’s Art In Time: Comic Book Adventures 1940-1980 and Chris Nichols’ The Leisure Architecture of Wayne McAllister.

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C. also needed some books to read. I gave him a couple of things NOT on his wish list (but perfect for him), Anthony Slide’s Inside The Hollywood Fan Magazine and the Images of America photo collection Early Warner Bros. Studios. Good background info for our next Burbank trip.

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Finally I also gave the spouse some DVD sets picked up at Big Lots and Target — Star Trek Fan Collective: Klingon, Perry Mason Season 3, Vol. 1 and a Fox film collection containing Fantastic Voyage, The Lost World, The Towering Inferno and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Hours of viewing fun from those hauls!

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Weekly Mishmash: December 19-25

book_bobbedhairBobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the 1920s by Marian Meade. Brisk read examines four female writers — Dorothy Parker, Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edna Ferber — as they came to find their voices over the course of the 1920s. The book takes on a novel structure, with chapters organized by year detailing what each woman was up to from 1920 through the close of 1930. It throws the reader right into the action, dispensing with the usual (boring) background details in the subjects’ lives. It’s a rather superficial approach to take, but I enjoyed it and Meade’s breezy writing style sweeps you right along. Although the ladies all had their unique voices as writers, it’s interesting to note how many scenes and people (mostly Manhattan-based) overlapped with each person’s narrative. They all dealt with being writerly and intelligent in an era when women were grappling with having careers vs. more traditional roles. After reading this book, I’d say Edna Ferber is the one I’d most want to sit down for a chat with coffee. Dorothy Parker is a towering figure, quite modern and ahead of her time. Edna St. Vincent Millay was a bundle of contradictions and quirks (who knew of her obsession with bowel movements?), and poor Zelda Fitzgerald seemed like a fragile if shallow soul. Bland title aside, this was a thrilling read. I could easily enjoy something similar on writers in the ’30s, ’40s and beyond.
Fog Island (1945). Junky b-movie about eccentric millionaire George Zucco, who gathers all the people he believed helped kill his wife for a rendezvous at his island castle (built by pirates, no less!). Soggy revenge tale with a confusing mystery and tacked-on “young love” subplot. This film seems awfully familiar to anyone who has seen the contemporary version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The only spark in the cast came from character actress Jacqueline deWit, playing a clairvoyant. She was a lot more memorable opposite Joan Crawford in The Damned Don’t Cry and Jane Wyman in All That Heaven Allows, however.
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Frogs (1972). Another timeless classic recorded on our local This TV affiliate. I came to this one believing it was about a bunch of giant frogs taking revenge on people. I must have had it confused with the giant rabbit opus Night of the Lepus, however, since this film shows a horde of normally proportioned frogs wreaking havoc on a Southern mansion — along with lizards, spiders, alligators and other creepy things. No, the only grossly proportioned thing here is Ray Milland’s mugging as a plantation owner whose decision to pollute the local waters is what triggers this whole mess. A tight-pantsed Sam Elliott and Joan Van Ark are the main protagonists in a cast that includes every Southern sterotype known to humankind, including the Sexy Black Chick. The animal attacks themselves are laughably lame, of course, but you might want to give this a peek just to witness how common lizards actually know which chemicals combine to form lethal gasses. Lesson learned — don’t piss off a lizard.
Miami Blues (1990). Slipped this on my Netflix queue after having a yen to explore some early ’90s thrillers I missed out on. This particular one is a sleeper of the genre since it was made by ailing Orion Films and dumped into release in early 1990 with little notice. Alec Baldwin is well-known as a comedic performer, but I was surprised at how funny, charming and sexy he is this early on as an ex-con who goes on a one man crime wave, wooing a naive prostitute (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and even stealing the identity of the cop (Fred Ward) who is pursuing him throughout sun-baked Miami. Filled with tons of quirky touches, this film heaps up the comedy and jarring violence in equal measure. The script is very smart, but mostly what makes it sing are Baldwin and Leigh (who oughta have gotten an Oscar nom for this role).
Sleep, My Love (1948). This one was a bit of a surprise when it showed up on Netflix’s Watch Instantly offerings, since it stars Claudette Colbert and I’d never heard of it. An independent production from a company headed by Mary Pickford and Charles “Buddy” Rogers, this shadowy thriller opens coolly with a disoriented Colbert on a passenger train wondering how she got there. Reunited with husband Don Ameche, she’s informed that she accidentally shot the man in his arm and needs to be under constant surveillance by the protective husband. It’s only through the efforts of sympathetic friend Robert Cummings that we find out what’s really going on. Since the contrived Gaslight-style plot is nothing special, one can see why director Douglas Sirk disdained this effort — but it is enjoyable in its own hokey “woman in danger” way. Colbert plays the melodrama to the hilt, and I enjoyed voluptuous Hazel Brooks in the classic femme fatale role of Ameche’s secret lover. There’s also a young Raymond Burr and Keye Luke, who participates in the film’s most unusual scene depicting a traditional Chinese wedding. No great shakes, but worthwhile watching for the ’40s film junkie with a Netflix account.
The Social Network (2010). We decided to make this our Christmas Eve special viewing before the film left the theaters. No need to go into detail about the plot or anything, but this was an excellent film. How could it go wrong with David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin involved? Not to diminish Fincher’s contributions, but it is Sorkin’s literary, intelligent (if weirdly mannered and not very true-to-life) dialogue that makes this film. And the casting is fantastic, starting with Jesse Eisenberg’s note-perfect blend of genius and misfit as Mark Zuckerberg, a man who (according to this film) co-founded a website that thrives on personal interaction based on an appalling lack of basic face-to-face people skills. The film has a lot of atmosphere, and the storytelling is so strong that, as C. put it, the film could go on for another hour or two and still remain enthralling.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989). Another in my endeavor to watch all the Trek films in the order they came out. In the words of Comic Book Guy, “Worst Star Trek movie ever.” But it’s not due to William Shatner (who directed and co-scripted), as many believe. This lazy effort begins with Spock’s half-brother Sylock as he goes to a dusty, Mad Maxesque planet and takes three ambassadors hostage in an effort to meet the Supreme Being. The paunchy, aging Captain Kirk and crew must save the besieged planet, all the while dealing with Klingons who are completely in awe of Kirk’s fighting ability and all-around awesomeness. The film moves pretty quickly and the old Enterprise gang has a wonderful camaraderie that goes well beyond the roles the actors are playing. Those are about the only good things in a film which stumbles through one implausibility after another in a series of bad calls. Probably the low point came when 50ish actress Nichelle Nichols did an undignified “sexy” fan dance — no, Uhura, no! Next in line will be Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which I actually remember seeing in the movie theater with my parents.

The Girl from Ipanema from the CD from Goodwill

The 1996 CD Nova Bossa: Red Hot On Verve originally came out as a companion piece to the “current artists covering Brazilian music” benefit project Red Hot + Rio. Although I bought the latter (which is okay, if lacking in truly memorable covers) when it first came out, Nova Bossa never entered my mind until I spied it in the stacks at the local Goodwill. It’s actually a cool little compilation. Even though it contains frequently anthologized stuff like “The Girl from Ipanema,” the tracks are nicely sequenced with atmospheric interludes suggesting a walk through the streets of Rio de Janero with random songs piping out of apartments and shops. There are even a few tracks that take a delightful turn away from the usual Bossa Nova sound, such as the kitschy “Bicho Do Mato” by organist Walter Wanderley, or Caetano Veloso’s garage rock/bubblegum freakout “Superbacana.” In the great scheme of ’60s-’70s Brazilian music it merely scratches the surface — but one can never have too many comps of this type, eh?

Speaking of “Girl from Ipanema,” how about a clip of Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz performing their hit in a wintry lodge (?) in the teen flick Get Yourself A College Girl? That Astrud really knows how to stay perfectly still.

And here is Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim doing their ’74 classic “Aguas De Marco” on some unknown variety show. It seems like every song I’ve heard with Ms. Regina finds her laughing and having a good time, and this is no exception:

Weekly Mishmash II: December 12-18

vhs_trolliiTroll 2 (1990) and Best Worst Movie (2009). Can one make a film called Troll 2 and not have any trolls in it? After seeing this legendarily awful Utah-made opus for the first time, I can emphatically answer “yes!” The muddled story concerns a boy (Michael Stephenson) who learns through his dead grandpa that the small town his family is staying in is run by a creepy, vaguely defined vegetarian-goblin cult — as if the town’s name of Nilbog wasn’t enough! Although many bad movies are able to get by with one terrible scene, miscast role or stupid piece of dialog, this particular gem is notable for its wall-to-wall awfulness. My first inclination (correct, as it turned out) was that the direction and script came from people who don’t have a firm command of English. How else does one explain “They’re eating her… and then they’re going to eat me”? Anyhow, between the stilted acting, unbelievable villains, and perfectly executed ’80s aesthetics (Garfield/G.I. Joe t-shirts, perky Chess King-cum-Miller’s Outpost ensembles, goblin cakes decorated by a crew member’s mom), this movie is perfect viewing for a large, snickering crowd… with plenty of double decker bologna sandwiches to go around. The misbegotten Troll 2 was destined for obscurity, yet it has grown to become a cult classic — and it’s in this realm that actor Michael Stephenson set out to make his documentary Worst Best Movie. Less a making-of than a “where are they now?” piece, Stephenson’s film revisits most of the Troll 2 participants and details (sometimes uncomfortably) their love/hate relationship with the famous stinker. Many laugh it off, others have a more melancholy slant, and a few have a strangely myopic view when it comes to Troll 2‘s greatness (the actress who played the mom even compares it to Casablanca!). The film is somewhat sloppy and bizarre, but worthwhile all the same. Mostly it winds up being a tribute to George Hardy, who played Stephenson’s dad in the film but has since returned to dentistry and being a pillar of his Alabama community.
Varsity Show (1937). Ta da – the fourth and final film in my Busby Berkeley vol. 2 DVD set! This one might have the slightest storyline, with a group of eager college students enlisting the aid of alumnus Dick Powell (him again?) to put on the swellest varsity show in the history of ever. It’s Glee, 1937 style, and an embryonic version of the wholesome Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland flicks to come. The film opens energetically with a sweetly invigorating number in which the young cast (including Priscilla Lane in her movie debut) introduce themselves. What follows is routine musical comedy fare, directed by the workmanlike William Keighley. Powell seems a bit tired here, and the roles played by Ted Healy and Walter Catlett fail to amuse, but they’re boosted by the cast’s lively youngsters and some cute (if hard to recall) tunes. It’s also very choppy in parts — as when actress Rosemary Lane appears in a crowd, cheering on her own stage act. Berkeley’s contribution is an eye-popping finale in which multitudes of chorus boys and girls arrange themselves to look like various college insignias. Doesn’t sound like much here, but the numbers have the brilliant abstraction of his earlier stuff — minus the gritty, urban edge.

Weekly Mishmash I: December 12-18

dvd_earthiiEarth II (1971). Our first sampling of the made-to-order DVDs from Warner Archive (we bought a bundle in the site’s 5-for-$50 Black Friday sale). This quasi-2001 TV movie was Christopher’s choice, since he fondly remembered viewing it as a kid. In the film, Earthlings have set up a utopian space colony in which wars/conflicts don’t exist and every issue is voted on amongst its citizens via interactive televised discussions. When a Chinese satellite containing a nuclear bomb drifts into their orbit, the people of Earth II risk everything – including the onset of World War III – to diffuse it. This film was interesting, if poky paced and talky. I enjoyed watching it if only to see how the filmmakers adapted the style of 2001: A Space Odyssey (its obvious influence) within a made-for-TV milieu. For criminy’s sake, the cast is even headed by 2001 star Gary Lockwood! Other players include Mariette Hartley in her pre-Kodak commercial phase, Lew Ayres, Gary Merrill (sporting a bad comb-over) and even Benson‘s lovable housekeeper, Inga Swensen. Too plodding to be a complete success, but the production design is nice and Lalo Schifrin’s grand scoring gives the film some needed gravity, so to speak. Warner’s DVD edition has a crisp, nicely presented picture.
Going My Way (1943). Another notch in my effort to watch all the Best Picture Oscar Winners, this Bing Crosby/Barry Fitzgerald feel-good opus pushed all the right buttons for a war-weary public in ’43, but does it hold up today? I’d say no. The picture meanders and contains a few too many subplots, but Crosby and Fitzgerald are both charming and they are matched by an attractive supporting cast which includes Warner Bros. fave Frank McHugh, pretty opera star Risë Stevens (who is apparently still with us, bless her heart) and Our Gang‘s Alfalfa, Carl Switzer. I know, hating on something like Going My Way is like spitting on your mother, but I’ll say it — this was far from being a worthy Best Picture Oscar winner. Overwhelming mawkishness aside, part of my resistance to this film lies in how Crosby’s very type (the earnest Man of the Cloth who can also hang with the homeboys) has become such a boring cliché. The casting is good and there are several sweet musical numbers, but overall I found it very blah and non-compelling (not to mention long, long, long). Double Indemnity so should have won that year!
Happy-Go-Lucky (2008). Actress Sally Hawkins got good notices (even a Golden Globe nomination, for what it’s worth) for this Mike Leigh film a few years back. Good enough reasons for me to check it out, but the film was a disappointment. The slight plot concerns Hawkins’ guileless schoolteacher as her cheery disposition either enlightens or infuriates those around her. A British Pollyanna, or perhaps the female Forrest Gump? Hawkins is at first very engaging, with a casual manner that is very unusual to behold. As the film goes along and we witness her character giggling through driving lessons, a tango class, and otherwise serious repartee with her siblings, however, the woman becomes simply annoying. Having not watched many Mike Leigh films (I vaguely remember seeing 1991′s Life Is Sweet and being similarly underwhelmed), this trifle does absolutely nothing to arouse my curiosity.
The Medicine Man (1930). Shoddily made comedy-drama produced by the z-grade Tiffany studio is notable for being the first starring vehicle for Jack Benny. Previously known as the funnyman emcee of stuff like Hollywood Revue of 1929 (another Warner Archive offering!), Benny takes on a more subtle turn here as a medicine man with a small time traveling carnival. His character becomes the savior of poor Betty Bronson and Billy Butts, children of an abusive shopkeeper played by E. Alyn Warren. Benny and Bronson fall for each other, but can they marry before the show leaves town? Story is pure hokum befitting of a D.W. Griffith melodrama, and the comedy doesn’t work in this poorly paced story. Even worse, Warren’s nasty character is so cruel it throws everything else off. This is a cruddy movie all the way; even Bronson’s somewhat nuanced performance can’t save it.
Smoke Signals (1998). A brooding Native American (Adam Beach) needs to travel to another state to retrieve the body of his recently deceased father. In order to do so, he must take a long road trip with the nerdy young man (Evan Adams) who was saved from a burning building as a baby. Laid back indie is noted for its all Native cast. The acting is actually very good all around, even if the so-so story fails to accomplish much. I liked how the director presents an unvarnished view of Native life in which even the smaller characters have a depth and humor. The film’s latter half gets seriously derailed by Beach’s horrible wig, however. This was recommended by Leonard Maltin and my mom, both of whom have strikingly similar tastes in (rather facile) feel-good entertainment.
I’ve watched so many movies this week, I’m splitting them in two (again). More tomorrow, folks!

Little King in Cartoonland

1930s comics star The Little King befriends two hobos in Christmas Night (1933). We recently saw this via Netflix stream as part of the Cartoons That Time Forgot: Van Beuren Studios collection. It’s strange and not too terribly holiday-esque, but cute all the same:

How about some more animated Little King? Here he is three years later with a much more fondly remembered cartoon star, in Betty Boop and the Little King. Onscreen, he’s a bit vague; cartoonist Otto Soglow bestowed the character and his strip with an Art Deco panache that was more appropriate for the newspaper comics page than the cinema. Can’t blame ‘em for trying, however.

Related: The Little King at Wikipedia.